on April 27, 2002
You might not expect to find a novel that among other things links chamber music with the perils of perfectionism, sexual masochism and sadism - and the inner and outer life of a talented and tormented woman. "The Piano Teacher" does this and much more.
Erika Kohut is a former music prodigy in her late thirties, a teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, strict and rigid with her students - as well as with herself. Her father left shortly after her birth and she lives with her elderly mother, who is, we are told, old enough to be her grandmother, and her "inquisitor and executioner all at once." Her mother has given her all to assuring her daughter's talent: "Erika has never had to do housework, because dustrags and cleansers ruin a pianist's hands." The daughter's "vocation is her avocation: the celestial power known as music." Erika has a room of her own in their apartment - mostly a place to hide some of her possessions. Mother and daughter sleep in one bed. Her mother expects obedience, loyalty - and Erika's paycheck, which is to help buy them a new apartment.
Erika wants a life of her own but has no idea of how to go about getting it. She is repulsed by the fact of her aging and by her femaleness. Love and suffering are inextricably linked. She wanders through Vienna after work and lies to her mother in order to indulge herself occasionally in excursions to peep shows and furtive shopping trips to buy beautiful, well-made clothes which she takes home stuffed in her briefcase - so that Mom won't see.
Erika's cacophonous memories of her past sexual episodes with men roil in her head. She is overwhelmed by herself. She cannot feel nor respond to conventional expressions of tenderness and love. She knows what she wants, however, and develops a relationship with a much younger student, Walter Klemmer, in order to get it.
This is an amazing novel about an unconventional and unconventionally disturbed woman, the urge to direct one's own suffering, and the consequences of a life so thoroughly dedicated to control and perfection. The descriptions are compact and rich: not a word is wasted. It's a political novel, too: critical of modern bourgeois life. I was mesmerized and disturbed by it, and awed by Jelinek's abilities.
on March 16, 2003
I was first exposed to The Piano Teacher by way of film, which is excellent, but it left some lingering questions about the psychological mindframe of the leading characters. The book offers a very twisted glimpse into the minds of Erika, her Mother and Walter Klemmer, and does so with incredible dexterity.
If anything, I was impressed by the fluidity of the text, of the author's ability to integrate all three voices into one and still sound impartial with every character. Her language might bore some people as it is filled with curious metaphors and details, but she has an amazing ability to go on many tangents from something very trivial to something quite absurd.
This book is very psychologically disturbing. There is a constant power struggle within the Mother-daughter-intruder triangle and the roles are constantly switching off, with the rarest of outcomes. Sexual roles are also misplaced, with the woman the violent and rapeful while the man is cast into the submissive and traditional type.
If you could look past the violence and insanity of this book, you would find it highly enjoyable and thought provoking.
on March 11, 2015
THE PIANO TEACHER is so raw and brutal and honest that it seems almost deserving of five stars if for no other reason than by virtue of its intellectual bravery...on the other hand, it is so raw and brutal and honest that it can be difficult to internalize, difficult to experience. Measuring it with a scale that starts at 'I hate it' and ends with 'I love it' seems ridiculous--even the judgment of good or bad is insufficient. It seems to me that about all that can be said about a book like THE PIANO TEACHER is that it will be worthwhile to some readers.
It is the story of Erika Kohut, an emotionally and developmentally stunted thirty-five-year-old woman, who early on showed promise of becoming a great concert pianist, but whose talent stopped just short of vaulting her into the ranks of celebrity. Much of Erika's failure to mature could be laid at the feet of her mother, perhaps; a woman with whom Erika still lives, and who dominated her daughter's upbringing. As a result, the two share a rather static love/hate relationship/cohabitation, and THE PIANO TEACHER is a chronicle of Erika's attempt to break free of that cage.
Many books rely on a collaboration between author and reader for their impact; THE PIANO TEACHER, even more than others, seems dependent upon the reader's internal settings for resonance. The book's aggressive depiction of sexual situations and the degradation of the character of Erika will likely be off-putting for many and are, frankly, rather extreme--if that was all that there were to the book, then it would have little appeal. And the unusual omniscient technique that Ms. Jelinek uses to describe Erika's inner world may also be a stumbling block--I might say that it is all telling and little showing. Yet I felt that the author's technique--as well as the graphic sexuality--were well suited to depict the deconstruction of Erika; as both a woman, and as someone driven by inner forces to seek emotional fulfillment.
It's as if one of the author's goals was to dismantle the popular conception of what a woman is--how she thinks, what she feels, and how she conceives of the world. In Ms. Jelinek's hands, that is often unflattering, and ugly as well. Yet disturbing as it is, that deconstruction is where I think the worth of THE PIANO TEACHER lies. I hesitate to call it insightful, as I doubt there are few women similar to Erica, but I do think it is illuminating. Others may disagree, and see Erica's case as too pathological from which to extract anything useful. I wouldn't argue, which is why I feel the worth of the book is highly dependent on the reader's internal settings. A difficult book to recommend, and even more difficult to know whom to recommend it to, yet no doubt powerful and intense.
This is a difficult book, though gruesomely compelling in its exploration of psychological and sexual pathology. Erika Kohut, in her late thirties, is a piano teacher at what is clearly the extension division of the Conservatory. A failed concert pianist, she has been brought up under the total control of her mother, who still shares a bed with her. But Erika has a fantasy life of her own, and when she attracts the attention of a much younger student, her fantasies and the young man's interests collide, dragging both down into a mire of perversion.
The first hundred pages are the most difficult, since they set up the background for what follows. Jelinek writes in a dense but colloquial prose style that mingles various strands of psychic monologue, sometimes dealing with the past, sometimes the present, sometimes occupying a dream world, sometimes almost literal, so that the reader is forced to let go of all normal landmarks. But by the time the actual narrative takes hold, one has been mesmerised into following the story from the inside of the characters' minds rather than as a series of external events. That in itself is quite an achievement.
Jelinek was herself a student at the Vienna Conservatory, so she knows what she is talking about in musical matters. Music is used as a constant frame of reference, though more frequently as a demanding taskmaster than a romantic escape. But while all this rings true to a professional musician (I am one myself), I do not think that the metaphors would be lost to those without a musical background. On the other hand, do not read this book expecting a window on a glamorous world; there is very little glamor in Erika's life, and her service to music is no exception.
Elfriede Jelinek was the 2004 Nobel laureate in literature, but I recall that it was a controversial choice. Though her voice is unique and compelling, it is difficult for an outsider to place her among the greatest authors alive today. So I suspect that this novel can also be read as a political statement, in terms of what the Nobel citation called "the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power." Unfortunately, I do not know enough about modern Austria to know whether the story of these three particular characters can be seen as an expressionist metaphor for the Austrian psyche, or as a lurid parallel to events in postwar history.
on December 17, 2003
Chamber music and sado-masochism: not your usual mix, but they represent the inner and outer lives of a tormented woman. Holy moly, what a story, as well written as it is shocking, as mesmerizing as it is terrible.
Erika, a child musical prodigy, is now in her late thirties, a teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, a teacher as strick and rigid with her students as she is with herself. She lives very unhappily with her elderly mother who has given her all to assure her daughter's success. Erika has a room of her own in the small apartment they share, a room in which she hides the secret yearnings of her stifled life. But mother and daughter share a bed - definitely a weird dynamic going on here, and it gets weirder. In return for her lifetime of sacrifice, the mother expects loyalty and devotion; Erika wants only to escape - but she's powerless to know how to do it - except by the excesses of her sado-masochistic desires. It's when she enlists the complicity of a young male student, Walter Klemmer, that things begin to veer into the truly disturbed corners of Erika's brain, cracking the fragile shell of a life thoroughly dedicated to control and perfection.
on February 1, 2005
If you are conservative, I do not recommend the book, otherwise very much. Yes, it contains some phornographic details. And?
The book helps very much to understand people you meet every day. Erika, the piano teacher, has an extremely problematic relation to her mother. Some examples: Although Erika is not a joung woman, the mother expects her to be at home in time, they sleep in a same bed -Erika grows up without a father, etc. I have never seen a better description of such a situation. You get a very good insight of the motivations behind the everyday acts and the developement of Erika's voyeurism. Erika, then, finds herself in a love relation with her young student. She can in this affaire live out her sexual phantasies, but none of them is prepared for the things comming, the sadistic phantasies of her also break out, but somehow you feel sorry for her.
It is difficult to summarize the many observations of the author. Read without preoccupations, it's worth to do! Congratulations for the Nobel prize!
on May 11, 2014
This is a tough one to rate and review. From a literary-technical point of view this book is phenomenal: a thoroughly constructed (though relatively conventional told) story, hilarious episodes, a remarkable musical timbre (with episodes in a staccato- or andante-rythm) and lots of ingenious metaphors. The detached way of storytelling (very Canetti-like) underlines the strong sarcastic tendency.
Thematically this novel seems more like a psychological study of an extremely deviated personality rather than a fictional story. The 35-year old piano teacher Erika Kohut is the central character; she still lives with her mother and is completely controlled by this mother, or rather, lets herself be controlled by her mother. Erika has been perverted in such a thorough way that she is not capable of normal, open relationships, instead she develops a passion to maniacally observe other peoples sexual behavior, going to peep shows and pornmovie theaters, or secretly watching a man and a woman making love in a park. In the second part of the novel she tries to break loose of her mother in trying to engage in a sadomasochist relationship with her pupil Walter Klemmer, himself symbol of masculine arrogance and self-love. This develops into a very nasty finale.
No easy subject, for sure. And Jelinek excels in making the reader uncomfortable. She uses a very detached point of storytelling (Erika, the mother and the pupil are always described in the third person), but she mixes this with a very ingenious form of independent inner monologue. In this way the actions are recorded in an ice cold way, but enhanced with the inner motivations of the involved characters. All this strongly strengthens the effect of brutal harshness in the relations between the characters, stripped of every human emotion. And so all focus comes on the power-relationships, with only two options: domination or subjection, very related to the sadomasochistic theme.
As a reader Jelinek pulls you into a gruesome, harsh world, belittling a misanthrope like the French writer Celine into a chorister. In other reviews a link is suggested with the marxist analysis of Jelinek, presenting the 3 main characters as alienated personalities, products of the capitalist system. But, honestly, I don't recognize this very ideological reading.
In short, this is a novel you cannot love, it is a story that seems repulsive and continually repels the reader. But at the same time you keep on reading just because it presents an extremely perverse, but very interesting aspect of mankind. That’s why my rating is rather on the average.
on July 19, 2005
Though it has been almost twenty years since this book was firstly published, you can hardly see its ages. Now, you may name lots of other books that did (or still do) the same, but every single one of them stood as a giant monolith versus rest of the literature.
There is certain ammount of dark majesty in this book. Somehow, when one travels, one only gets to see those polished places made especially for toursit, those plastic feelings without passions that we grew accustomed to, and when someone smashes you with exactly that, passion, you must fall in wonder, or be forever silent and stunned.
When it first camed out, it was received badly, by fellow artists and not-so-fellow critics. But waht is to expect from the work that spits into the center of the "old grandeur" of Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Dark Prater, place of whores and their customers, where cries of rage and lovemaking are silenced with slaps and knife cuts, so different from the shiny Prater by daylight, built and made for tourist which cannot see farther than spinning wheel. It is no surprise that darkness of Wienna portraied here made some people uneasy. Somehow, it is by far more easier to awert ones eyes and refuse to see anything, than face the challenge, risking sanity.
Book that should be read, and studied....
on November 21, 1998
Being German, I read the German version. If the translation is any good, I can only recommend the novel. Not as a Christmas present for your boy-/girl-friend, though - it might spoil the evening.
Jelinek's novel is about violence. And everything about the novel is violent - the things she describes, the characters, the society they live in, and most of all the language. If you don't discredit it right away as outright obscenity, you'll be surprised, what Jelinek does with language (or rather: to language).
I wouldn't say that the book is a must for everyone. But if you are in the mood for something brutally true and don't get shocked or depressed easily, go right ahead ...!
on May 25, 2008
As an Austrian I was skeptical. Is it possible to translate Jelinek properly ? Joachim Neugroschel, who has also translated works by Kafka, Hesse, Mann, etc. proves that the answer is Yes. Jelinek's novel, respectively Jelinek's sharp deconstruction of phrases does not lose more than what necessarily gets lost. Neugroschel successfully managed this task !
~Pat Paul Jammernegg, author of Prototype